A few days ago I read a Rayne Fisher-Quann essay and fell into a kind of depression. Not because the content was depressing (though it was), but because it expressed something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I felt scooped, and frustrated that I had let thoughts sit in my brain without writing them out, without actualising them into something reflective of a goal I have, to be a writer.
In a way, I think that feeling is actually generated by what Fisher-Quann writes in the conclusion of her essay:
‘we consume so much, now, that perhaps we don’t know what it means to exist as something unsellable. i had to give up journalling because i couldn’t stop writing for the people who would read it after i was dead.’
I’ve written before on my sense of the weirdly thin gap between creator and consumer in the digital age, and how that creates a sense of possibility that if one could just capture the right thought and express it the right way, one could have what the creators of the content you consume have. Fisher-Quann is right; everyone around me is selling their thoughts – why can’t I?
I guess another question is why should I want to? I don’t think these questions are resolvable. On some level, if you are a creator, you have to offer up your mind, body, and experiences for money or approval or some other kind of feedback. I’m not sure there’s a way around it, but I’m not sure it’s healthy either.
There’s a kind of paradox in this, too. On the one hand, there is a kind of frustration when someone else articulates your ideas better than you can, or before you do. But on the other hand, when all of us are jostling our elbows against one another in the oversaturated internet marketplace of ideas, it’s almost impossible to have an original thought. You’re probably thinking something because a bunch of people have clued you into it without you realising it. Not only that, but the success of an essay like Fisher-Quann’s (or anyone else’s), is largely dependent on lots of other people thinking the same thing – so that when they see it articulated they can say, ‘yes, exactly!’ and share it on social media. ‘Finally someone put words to what we’re all feeling!’
[Breaking for a tangent, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot with regards to the personal essay as a genre. We all have an experience we can sell, and we can sell them on the assumption that one day someone will be feeling some kind of way, google it, and feel affirmed when they find an essay reflecting their experience. Who is the personal essay for? And is it the only thing we really write now? Are we all living in service of some ultimate personal essay? Etc. I know I am writing a personal essay right now, but maybe some of you will feel affirmed by it. Then: ca-ching!]
I think this depression I fall into is a sense of falling short of myself. That I have a goal, or a desire, for what I would like to be doing, and when I see others doing it successfully it highlights my own sense of failure. I often feel this way with my PhD, but I can trigger a situational depression there simply by getting stuck in my arguments. When the writing is hard, when the words aren’t flowing, I come to hate myself. What’s the use of being all idea and no written product, no argument to show to someone else? What am I if I’m all potential, and not actuality?
While logically I have no trouble at all refuting those arguments, or even believing that my writing will come around and make sense, that these difficulties are part of the process and that I will finish this PhD, and will write good essays in the future, it is difficult to counteract the emotional reaction of drawing further and further into myself, not working on the PhD, not writing, just removing myself from the equation, cancelling out my potentiality as well.
So anyway, I’m trying to get myself into therapy! Because I don’t think this is normal or healthy. But I do think it is an inevitable consequence of a market where individuals live such precarious and undercompensated lives, especially in academia, that we lose a sense of collaboration or dialogue, and can only see ourselves as in competition, threatened by the success of others, even though it is ultimately a good thing that there are so many voices chiming in online, that there are more postgraduate and early career researchers than ever – it is the result of sustained effort for greater access, a more diverse chorus to listen to, but with a sick twist, that since there are more of you, we won’t pay you, we won’t make room for you further down the line, so keep jostling in the holding cell, keep fighting and do that work of winnowing the pool down for us, by demoralising yourselves and breaking down and dropping out –
This obviously affects many, many people in ways it does not affect me. I am lucky, insulated, and privileged. But it’s enough to send me to bed for a few days, unable to look at the work I pushed myself so hard to be able to do – to make me want to give up on my life’s dream. Something is broken – something more than just my brain.